Coming to Terms with the Colonial Past Overdue in Spain

Colonial Era: Young recruits in the training battalion in Sidi Ifni, 1963-64.
Young recruits in the training battalion in Sidi Ifni, 1963-64. | Photo (detail) © César Malet (AFB)

In Spain a growing number of art and research projects are combating the loss of colonial memory. However, they are barely noticed and the lack of political will to engage with them is a wall that is difficult to break through.

By Andrés Antebi, Pablo González and Alberto López Bargados

In Spain, coming to terms with the past is a thankless business. The victors of the Civil War (1936-1939) asserted their cultural hegemony with regard to the interpretation of history. Myths were spread about a colonisation of America that was free of self-serving motives, or about the last will and testament of Isabella I, in which she urged Christian troops to continue the mission of salvation in North Africa that began in the Middle Ages with the re-conquest of the Muslim-dominated parts of the Iberian Peninsula ("Al-Andalus"). The transition to democracy saw no desire to overburden people's minds with so-called "sociological Franco-ism" and little effort was made to develop an alternative official way of coming to terms with the past that did not assume a moral and political superiority on the part of the previous regime. The amnesty law passed in 1977 under enormous political tensions did not make things any easier, because it propagated forgetting as the only effective strategy for reconciliation among Spaniards. It is therefore no wonder that in present-day Spain, for example, people are uncritical and indifferent towards the annihilation and plundering of indigenous peoples in the New World or towards the unimpressive colonial experiences in Africa with which they have not yet come to terms, as can be seen in the example of Western Sahara. Many European countries are subjecting their colonial past and its legacy to more or less convincing scrutiny. In Spain, on the other hand, there is still a deficit of memory in this respect, one that will probably continue in the future. 

Art as motor of coming to terms with the past

Over the past decades, however, numerous initiatives have also tried to counteract this forgetting. The problem, therefore, is not a lack of projects and efforts on the part of individuals and groups, but their perception. An initial sensitisation to the difficult colonial legacy has been taking place since the 1980s, albeit limited to the academic context. With the beginning of the 21st century, the debate, which was already being conducted more intensively in other European metropolises at that time, was given new impetus by newly emerging artistic research projects. Perhaps the first of these projects was the OVNI Archives (Observatorio del Vídeo No Identificado), a concept of the Centro de Cultura Contemporánea de Barcelona under the direction of the late Toni Serra (alias Abu Ali), who in 2006 launched the groundbreaking media festival El sueño colonial (The Colonial Dream).

From initiatives to networks

The OVNI exhibition was the spearhead of various initiatives that have since been appearing frequently. In 2010 the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS) in Madrid hosted the joint exhibition Principio Potosí (The Potosí Principle) with a large number of Spanish and international artists. All of them were keen to rethink, in line with the current of de-colonialism, the commonplaces that link the emergence of capitalism with the industrial revolution in Great Britain. Instead, other aspects and the 16th century are highlighted, such as the mining of raw materials in the course of Spanish colonisation, for instance in Bolivia’s infamous Potosí silver mines. The wealth of experience gained from the exhibition Principio Potosí and the global perception of debates on colonialism may have led MNCARS to organise Grupo Península 2012 and to join forces with the network Red de Conceptualismos desde el Sur. In the years that followed, both teams participated in numerous activities of the museum. Thus the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía developed into the most important Spanish institution that organised debates on colonialism, focusing on the experiences in Latin America, while in Barcelona the colonial attempts at modernity in Africa seem to arouse greater interest.

Peru, Ikunde, Ifni

The capital of Catalonia maintained significant trade relations with Equatorial Guinea during colonial times. From 2015 onwards, the role of the Catalan bourgeoisie in the Spanish colonial empire and the marks left by their urban construction has become increasingly controversial. One example here is artist Daniela Ortiz's actions - most recently in 2019 at the Virreina Centre de la Imatge under the provocative title Esta tierra jamás será fértil por haber parido colonos (This land will never be fertile because it has produced colonists) - or the exhibitions in the Barcelona, metròpoli colonial (Colonial Metropolitan Barcelona) project, organised by the team of the Observatori de la Vida Quotidiana (OVQ) at the Museu Etnològic i de Cultures del Món. They focused on the Centre for the Acclimatisation of Animals that the Barcelona City Council opened in continental Guinea (Ikunde, 2016) and on the experiences of Catalan recruits sent to the colonial enclave of Ifni to do their military service (Ifni: la mili africana de los catalanes, 2018).

In addition to these activities, others have followed in recent years, with initiatives that have multiplied and feature ever-greater decentralisation: the actions of Inés Plasencia at the Tabakalera Cultural Centre in San Sebastián (The day after. Imagen y memoria de la España colonial (The day after. Image and memory of colonial Spain), 2016) or by Juan Valbuena (Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente (eyes that see nothing, heart that does not feel), 2016) or, more recently, the retrospective of Ariella Azoulay at the Fundació Tàpies in Barcelona (Errata (misprints), 2019) are excellent examples of this increasing diversity of voices. There is no lack of projects and experiences, but rather a lack of political will to give them greater prominence, so that they can contribute to a revision of an overly complacent approach to the past, and to a fundamental critical debate in Spain that has been overdue until now, for example on the return of objects looted during colonial times.